Ed Williams lugged a giant plastic bag teaming with silvery blue fish down a creek bank in Waynesville where they would soon test the waters of their new home.
Earlier that day, the fish were scooped out of Jonathan Creek and hauled across the county in coolers to this spot on Richland Creek. The Tuckasegee darters didn’t need much coaxing once Williams untied the bag. In a flash of tiny fins, the 200 darters were deployed on their mission to once again repopulate Richland Creek.
The Tuckasegee darters are one of eight lost species that were killed off in Richland Creek decades ago due to industrial pollution. The water is much cleaner now, but the fish need a helping hand to reclaim their old territory. The dam at Lake Junaluska stands in the way of natural migration, thus Williams and a team of biologists from various environmental agencies are reintroducing the species by hand.
“All the species need to be present and work together to be a healthy ecosystem,” said Williams, a water quality advocate with the N.C. Division of Water Quality.
Williams is one year in to the three-year effort. By the end of the project, he hopes Richland Creek will be taken off the state’s list of “impaired waters.”
Richland Creek had two strikes against it when it landed on the state’s list of “impaired waters.”
The first was a lack of biological integrity, meaning all the species that are supposed to live there don’t. The reintroduction aimed at reversing the problem seems to be working so far. Species released into the creek last spring and fall have survived, based on a recent survey by Williams and his team.
“They all looked happy and healthy, so they seem to like their new home,” Williams said.
The real test is to come, however.
“In the fall, if we find some small ones, we will know they are reproducing,” Williams said.
The second strike against Richland Creek was contamination from leaking sewer lines and septic tanks, resulting in high levels of fecal coliform. Williams has led an effort to fix this as well, working alongside town sewer crews to patch leaks and identify culprits.
The goal is noble. It’s rare for a creek to find its way off the list of impaired waters, especially when it means tackling both pollution and a dearth of species. Time will tell if the efforts pay off.
To read a story on the effort to clean up fecal coliform in Richland Creek, go to http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/1156.